The Politics of Fight Club
What seems like a thousand years ago, I was gulled by the hype into reading Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.
I ultimately found it incoherent and frustrating and dismissed it, eventually deciding that it was yet another piece of postmodernism in the worst sense of that term — shallow, muddled, pushing lots of buttons but not actually saying anything, which was a common enough experience back then, when I still paid attention to such things as “independent film.” And I was annoyed by how unlike so many pop cultural “phenomena” Fight Club didn’t seem to go away — how year after year, decade after decade, people kept on talking about it, getting excited about it.
In hindsight, it seems something much more insidious. Tyler Durden and company’s smugly willful irrationality and anti-rationality, their exultation in violent action for its own sake, their contempt for egalitarianism (from here we get the current, unfortunate usage of “snowflake”), their leader-worship, their fascination with the idea of an all-male pseudo-community intent on mayhem . . . they seems to pretty much cover any laundry list of traits of fascism one cares to name.
Of course, defining an ideology simply by a list of traits is not entirely satisfying. And so I find myself thinking of characterizations of fascism which attempt to get at its essence, with two such attempts standing out in my memory. One is of fascism as a politics that organizes people around self-expression, around theatrical display rather than self-interest. (Think of the Nazis serving up the spectacle of the Nuremberg rallies instead of making good on their promises of a higher living standard for the German people.) The other is that fascism is a combination of rebellious feeling with reactionary thinking. The book’s principals fit on both counts, of course — because self-expression rather than self-interest is what is at issue for them, because their rebellious feeling is combined with that worship of inegalitarianism, anti-humanism, violence, leader-cult and the rest that by any reasonable measure is reactionary.
Of course, having established that Tyler Durden and company are a pack of fascists, one is left with the question of what to make of the book itself. To depict a thing is not necessarily to advocate that thing — and like any other postmodernist Palahniuk surrounds his work with such a freight of irony that one can never be sure what he really thinks about anything, or even if he has any awareness of what he is presenting. (Given the intellectual shallowness on display, one cannot take that much self-awareness for granted.) However, whatever his intent, the attraction of what he presented for a certain demographic makes it clear that it did appeal specifically because of its fascism. Looking back it appears that this should have received more, and more critical attention — our cultural commentators fallen asleep on the job again.
Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.